The Church of Scientology has recently opened a new $20 million headquarters in London, in a ceremony attended by some respectable dignitaries. L. Ron Hubbard's sci-fi cult is gaining increasing endorsement from celebrities, albeit weird ones. There is even talk of its gaining tax-exempt charitable status in the UK, like a "mainstream" religion. In this new climate, John Sweeney's documentary, infamous before it was broadcast, sets out to investigate: is Scientology going legit? Is it still a sinister cult, or is it now a respectable religion?
As it turned out, Scientology's PR department answered the question more than adequately. Throughout the filming, and even afterwards, Sweeney and his team were constantly hounded, harrassed, followed by hired PIs, and refused entry to Church facilities. The cult's loathsome PR entity, Tommy Davis, a revolting Cruise-a-like in a mafia suit and sunglasses, kept popping up seemingly everywhere, disrupting interviews, intimidating interviewees, loudly drowning out complaints with canned speeches, canned anger and canned offence. When finally invited onto Scientology ground (for some staged interviews with celebs, all of whom refused to participate once "Xenu" was mentioned), the filmmakers couldn't escape from the cult's cameras. Even when they tried to stage an impromptu conference in the toilet -- where they thought they would have some privacy -- Davis interrupted them. Finally, at an exhibition in which Scientology was trying to blame the Holocaust on psychiatrists, one last provocation by Tommy made the BBC reporter blow his top in a most embarrassing and unprofessional manner, as widely seen on Youtube. Though given his treatment leading up to the outburst, I found it impossible not to sympathise.
In spite, or perhaps because of Sweeney's tantrum, I found the documentary entertaining, and successful in illustrating the cult's approach to outsiders. No sane person who watched it could think better of Scientology. I'm also pleased to note that the cult's attempt to wage war on the Internet, with the Youtube video and their own counter-documentary, has backfired spectacularly. The Clams have so lost touch with society that they had no idea they would come out of the affair looking a whole lot worse.
I couldn't, however, call Scientology and Me a great documentary, even in comparison to the BBC's earlier features on the cult. The title -- a clear allusion to Roger and Me -- is an early indication that it belongs to the strand of documentaries that are as much about the filmmaker and the filmmaking as the nominal subject. While I think this is a valid style, especially for controversial subjects -- there is no false pretence of "balance" -- I don't think Sweeney is suited to it. He's not as charismatic or personable as Michael Moore or Louis Theroux; he seems a bit of a blowhard, he fancies himself as an action man, he takes himself very seriously. It's difficult to imagine Louis Theroux losing it so badly in the final confrontation. In fact, I found myself wishing that Theroux had done the documentary; his amiable, faux-naif style would have given the cultists plenty of rope to hang themselves, luring them into making unwittingly revealing statements, while also uncovering the human inside the Clam.
In the end, Sweeney's film didn't penetrate very deeply. When it started trotting out the Xenu story as compelling evidence of the cult's sinister nature, I knew we were in for a once-over-lightly analysis. L. Ron's 75-trillion-year-old space phantoms might be ridiculous, but they're not significantly more ridiculous than what Christians believe. (Which somebody should also tell the makers of that predictably crude and stupid South Park episode.) Scientology is more crazy and dangerous than "mainstream" religion (at least for its followers), but Xenu is not the reason why.
Don't get me wrong: I have no time for religion -- I nightly pray for its demise -- but there is a world of difference between a religion like Christianity, Buddhism or Islam, and a cult like Scientology. All religions, to some extent or another, prey on the weak, but Scientology does it almost exclusively. Furthermore, it exploits its members, deliberately cutting them off from friends and family, sucking away their money -- in fact, it's a blatant moneymaking scam. Its totalitarian leadership exercises control over its members in a way Popes and Ayatollahs can only dream of. I wouldn't be overly concerned if one of my friends became, say, a Christian, but I'd be very worried if a friend became a Scientologist.
The Church of Scientology was made in the image of its founder -- a delusional paranoiac, a fraud, a liar and a con artist, whose ravings became increasingly violent and insane as his life wore on. Hubbard devised and gave his godlike approval to the policies of "fair game" and "dead agenting" -- violent intimidation tactics the cult practises on outsiders, and insiders wanting to leave. While a handful of targeted celebs promote the glamorous Scientology lifestyle, many more inner circle members are forced to enter near-slavery in order to pay the outrageous "auditing" bills. They are routinely punished in internal discipline camps, or, worse still, press-ganged into the "Sea Org", L. Ron's wish-fulfillment fantasy navy, which has been implicated in the deaths of some of its members.
In the name of "religious tolerance", many cult apologists, such as the fuckwits at religioustolerance.org, take the side of this organisation against its opponents, repeating Scientology propaganda verbatim. It's a sad reminder of one of the many liberal contradictions -- if you preach universal tolerance, you end up tolerating intolerance, and ultimately defending it. Scientology is one of the least tolerant organisations in existence. If its crimes are less than those of Christianity, it is only because the cult is so intolerant and sinister and just plain weird that relatively few people have been attracted to it, and so it never had any real power. If Scientology -- as was Hubbard's intention -- managed to gain real political influence, then it would be very dangerous indeed.
Bearing that in mind, Scientology and Me is a useful counterblast to cult apologists. As Sweeney observed, it is difficult to imagine the Anglican church acting in such an intimidating manner towards its critics, being so paranoid about control. After viewing the documentary, perhaps a few million more people will see the cult for what it is.